Argument

How a Candidate’s Stabbing Will Further Radicalize Brazil

Right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro’s wounds will heal, but the country’s politics will never be the same.

Bolsonaro waves at the crowd during a campaign rally in the district of Ceilandia in Brasilia, on September 5, 2018. (Evaristo SA/FP/Getty Images)
Bolsonaro waves at the crowd during a campaign rally in the district of Ceilandia in Brasilia, on September 5, 2018. (Evaristo SA/FP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Jair Bolsonaro, the controversial right-wing candidate leading the polls in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election, was stabbed in the abdomen while at a campaign rally in Juiz de Fora, a city 100 miles outside Rio de Janeiro. The man arrested in the attack, Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, claims to have acted “on orders from God.” Early reports indicate that de Oliveira has a history of mental illness and is obsessed with online conspiracy theories.

After emergency surgery, Bolsonaro is stable. It is too early to know, though, whether and when he will be able to resume his heavy campaign schedule in the run-up to the first round of the election on Oct. 7.

Politics in Brazil is a dangerous business. In the decade between 2007 and 2018, 79 candidates in local elections and 97 mayors and city councilors were murdered, and the country is a leader in the Latin American race for the most assassinations of journalists. In March, Marielle Franco, a city councilor from Rio de Janeiro, was shot dead after denouncing police brutality. Later that month, someone opened fire on a campaign bus carrying supporters of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is running against Bolsonaro from jail after being convicted of corruption.

Bolsonaro might have thought that his campaign positions would offer him some protection from assassination attempts. He rose from obscurity on a pro-police, law-and-order platform that includes proposals to lift Brazil’s ban on the possession of firearms, which might have made him less of a target. But now it is clear that he was overly optimistic. As Brazil confronts a crime wave that saw over 60,000 homicides last year alone, it seems that no one is safe.

As the country waits for more news of Bolsonaro’s health, supporters have taken to Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to urge him to continue his campaign. And all of the other contenders for the presidency have put their campaign commitments on hold. Whatever unfolds in the coming days, it is already clear that the stabbing will change election dynamics in two ways.

First, the violent attack will highlight Bolsonaro’s pledge to lift restrictions on gun purchases (purportedly to allow Brazilians to better defend themselves) and give police more discretion to use lethal force. The candidate is known for being a gun enthusiast, and during a recent campaign rally, he said that, after he won the elections, his supporters would “kill them all,” referring to left-wing Workers’ Party supporters.

Bolsonaro’s proposals will likely now appear even more appealing to Brazilians on the right. He may even steal some votes from moderate center-right candidates, who have been reluctant to back more radical revisions of current gun control laws. On the left, though, the attack will be used to argue that Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric and reckless defense of gun ownership has only heightened the violence. The episode, in other words, will deepen the country’s already vast divisions.

Second, in the coming days, rival candidates will have a hard time attacking Bolsonaro overtly. That will be a major problem for their campaigns, because most television ads have already been recorded. This is particularly disturbing for center-right candidate Geraldo Alckmin, whose well-funded campaign was relying on negative TV ads to convince conservative voters of the dangers of supporting an extreme populist.

Bolsonaro was already a front-runner in the race—now it looks even more likely that he will be one of the two contenders to make it to the runoff on Oct. 28. What impact the stabbing will have on the final vote, though, remains to be seen. Even though he leads the polls with 22 percent of the intended vote, Bolsonaro is still a deeply divisive figure—44 percent of voters say that they would never cast a ballot for him. His misogynous and racist comments on the campaign trail have alienated him from moderates, female voters, and minority groups across the board.

Whether he wins or loses, Bolsonaro’s campaign and the knife attack will change Brazilian politics. He embodies the politics of anger that has swept Brazil over the last four years as a major recession—the biggest in recent history—tanked the economy and as a string of scandals exposed widespread corruption across the political class.

With the traditional parties discredited, the field was wide open, and Bolsonaro stepped in. A member of Brazil’s Congress for nearly three decades, he spent most of his career as a fringe figure representing low-rank military officers. Since 2016, however, he has risen to prominence by channeling popular dissatisfaction into support for radical (if unproven) solutions to Brazil’s crime and corruption problems. Bolsonaro has vilified his opponents on the right and left, and in the process he has become the only candidate besides Lula to have built up a mass following.

The attack on Bolsonaro makes clear just how radicalized the Brazilian electorate has become. Growing dissatisfaction with the country’s institutions and poor economic performance has bubbled over in many ways, and as discontent with traditional elites becomes even more prevalent, politics will continue to become more extreme and more violent. Bolsonaro may stand out for his radicalism now, but it is possible that he’ll look rather average in the decades to come.

After the knife attack, Sérgio Etchegoyen, a general and key minister in the current government, called for an end to radicalism. “Hatred will not make us prosper,” he said in a speech. Yet the political establishment has only itself to blame for the current state of affairs in Brazilian politics. For decades, Brazilian elites have thrived in a democracy that consistently privileges interest groups at the expense of the majority and is fueled by large-scale political corruption. The reason so many voters support radical change is because they have lost any hope that the current political system can be reformed from within.

Eduardo Mello is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil.

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